By Debie Thomas
Lent is my favorite liturgical season, but this year I’m impatient for it to be over. Two weeks from now, during the Easter Vigil at my church, my thirteen-year-old son will be baptized. Needless to say, I’m delighted. I hope he finds the sacrament rich and meaningful, and I can’t wait to celebrate it with him.
Given my own faith history, my son’s anticipated baptism has made me wistful in a bittersweet way. I was twelve when my father baptized me. I remember the day very clearly — the June sun reflecting on the water; church members, friends, and extended family gathered around the pool, singing “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus,” my father’s hands covering mine as he lowered me into the water. “Upon your profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and in obedience to His divine command, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Apparently — I don’t remember this, but it’s family lore — I started asking to be baptized when I was less than three years old. “Asking” might be too wimpy a word; if the rumors are true, I cried, begged, and even threw a few ferocious tantrums in my father’s study, insisting that I was “saved,” and ready to get dunked.
My father disagreed; he wanted to make sure I understood what I was doing. The irony of his caution is not lost on me now: if there was ever a time when I “understood what I was doing” as a Christian, it was probably at age three. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said we need to become like little children — full of trust, open to love, and wholly captivated by Mystery. I’m sure my adult life has been one long attempt to return to such fervent, sacred comprehension.
But my father had a point. In the tradition that raised me, baptism was above all a stepping out from the crowd. A highly individual, personal demonstration of belief. “I choose to follow Christ. I choose to identify as a Christian. I choose to make a public declaration — without apology, without shame — of my private beliefs.”
Accordingly, the question I had to answer before my father plunged me into the water was a creedal question. A “Do you personally accept and believe?” question. It was essential that I understood the doctrinal nuances of the question, and equally important that I answered with a Biblically and theologically literate “Yes.” After all, my baptism was a symbolic enactment of my faith.
I don’t want to argue with this understanding of baptism; it remains meaningful to me in many ways. But I no longer think of baptism as a stepping out. I am more inclined now to see it as a stepping in.
On the day I got baptized, I had no felt sense that I was giving myself over to something larger, older, wiser and more capacious than my own one-on-one with Jesus. I had no idea that my “personal decision to love God” — important though it is — pales in significance to God’s cosmic decision to love me — and the whole of humanity and creation along with me. I didn’t know that God was ushering me into a Story — a huge, sprawling Story that began eons before I showed up in my father’s study with tiny fistfuls of belief.
In other words, I had no comprehension of sacrament. Baptism — I thought — was me choosing God. Not God choosing me, and sealing me for all time as his own.
What I knew and felt as a young Christian was an almost overwhelming sense of responsibility. So much depended on me! There was so much I needed to get right. So many ways I could mess up. Even years after I was baptized, I feared for my salvation. What if my profession of faith hadn’t been fervent enough?
My son — like most teenagers — is in the process of figuring out who he is. We have frequent conversations about his likes and dislikes, his opinions and ideas, his hopes and dreams. This is as it should be — his job right now is to become a young man in his own right. To test his strength, feel his power, learn his mind. His task is not to become a parrot of me, or a mirror image of his father — but to consolidate his own individual selfhood.
And yet. As I pray about his baptism, my hope is that he will understand the paradoxical power of stepping in. Of giving himself over to something deeper and more trustworthy than the shifting sands of his own opinions, creeds, and doctrines. An ancient cloud of witnesses. A worldwide community of the faithful. A liturgy that endures. A created universe that whispers, laughs, and shouts God’s name from every nook and corner.
I don’t worry about belief as I used to; I believe and disbelieve a hundred times a day, and yet the efficacy of my baptism holds. That is the point — I am held. Not by my own profession of faith, but by the saving power of the One who parts the clouds, blesses the water, and calls me his beloved child.
Baptism — I understand now — is surrender. Not, perhaps, the most fashionable concept for a thirteen-year-old boy (enamored of Avengers and Superheroes!) to grasp. But the life of faith is long, and God is a patient Teacher. I pray that my son will eventually remember his baptism as a moment of exquisite surrender. I pray that the indissoluble power of the sacrament will brace and steady him, no matter what sorrows life brings. And I pray that the fruits of his surrender to God’s magnificent and love-soaked Story will grow sweeter with the years.
Note: the title for this essay comes from Lindsey Crittenden, The Water Will Hold You; A Skeptic Learns to Pray (New York: Harmony Books, 2007).
Image credit: Redbridge Religious Education Network.
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